2014 Commencement Address

Tony La Russa, considered one of the best managers in baseball history and known for his tireless animal rescue work, addressed the Class of 2014 along with their family members and friends in the Brookings Quadrangle.


Full transcript of Tony La Russa's 2014 Commencement address

Thank you. Good morning. I was once introduced to a prolific best-selling fiction writer. One of the best gifts of my life was when my parents taught me the love of reading, early on, and I retain it to this day. I love reading books and I met this writer and he explained to me that in his books, that have been so successful, he concentrated most on the first sentence in the first paragraph and everything flowed from there.

So taking his advice, I wanted to concentrate on the first message. It’s one that I think is hard-earned. I thought seriously about this. I think in these times, my message to you would be, as you go forward, you need to understand the concept of personalization, taking things personally, being respectful to yourself and to others in a real personal way.

I’m going to get into it a little bit later but in the end, it’s the difference between encouraging and developing a strong and meaningful ego, but avoiding being egotistical.

Before that, I want to congratulate you. This is a momentous occasion. As it was mentioned by Steve [Brauer], you’re graduating — I like to not disrespect other institutions — but there is no finer university in the world than Washington University and you have successfully graduated.

I look at this scene and it’s overwhelming, the environment here. You know from my background, I never thought I would say that something is more impressive than opening day with the Cardinals.

But this is. I mean that, winning and losing a game, that’s sports, entertainment, great meaning to us, we try to be Hall of Famers, but this is more real and I’m sincere when I tell you that being here today, with the importance of what you accomplish with your graduation and what you have going forward is more important than a baseball season.

And I’m going to tell you that I’m anxious about these remarks, to the point I’m fearful. I’ve actually learned the difference between good fear and bad fear. I talked this morning, I was really struck by the Olympic music, I talked this morning with an Olympian, distinguished Olympic swimmer, and I told her what I was doing and she said she’d been invited before and was always too afraid to accept the invitation. And I thought, respectfully, I would talk to her about good fear/bad fear because that’s bad fear.

You feel this anxiety, the expectation of pressure and you decide that you’re going to dodge it. And you’re just not going to participate. You will regret that the rest of your life and you’re going to face a lot of opportunities where there’s an uncertain outcome and you’ve been given the opportunity to try it. Bad fear means you call in sick. And you will never ever have a strong personal feeling and a strong enough ego to be successful and take advantage of what you’ve gone through your whole life, including your education at Washington University.

The good fear is one that you recognize, to have this anxiety is normal. So I’m nervous. And what that has caused me to do is every day for the last month, I’ve thought about this few minutes that I’m going to speak to you, and I was up at 5:30 this morning changing it.

But my point is, I’m not afraid to try to say some things this morning that hopefully will be helpful. I’m more afraid of saying no, and not trying it and I suggest to you that that’s an important lesson going forward. Don’t be afraid. Good fear makes you study for a test because you want to make sure to do your best. Bad fear makes you afraid to take the test.

Before I go any further, I need to have some disclaimers, disclosure. When I was first invited, I questioned the good sense of the decision makers here at Washington University.

For example, supposed leader of the St. Louis Cardinals as a manager, and I recalled as we got ready to play the World Series in 2011, we had a get together with the team and we were talking about strategies that we were gonna pursue. And you know we talked about us playing good defense, play hard today, and execute, and all this stuff and right there at the end, one of our major leaders, Matt Holliday, said, “Don’t forget the strategy we’ve talked about privately all season long,” and I was like, “What’s that?” He said, “Let’s get so far ahead that Tony can’t mess it up!”

They thought I would be slighted by that. But I can remember my first job as a manager. I was introduced to the fans this way, and the farm director said, “If you have heard that the worst players make the best managers, this guy has a chance to be an outstanding manager.”

That night I had a decision to make about protecting a one run lead and brought in a reliever, gives up two runs and we lose. The farm director comes in, wondering about the quality of my decision. He says, “You may have been a better player than I thought you were.”

If that’s not bad enough, I really appreciate Mark [Wrighton] barelymentioning my playing career. It was less than mediocre. I played for Dick Williams, a Hall of Famer in Oakland, and several times he said, “Don’t bother to bring your glove and bat, it’s not going to do you any good here. Just bring your pompons and be a good cheerleader and if you have to play, use somebody else’s bat and glove because it’s really not going to help you,” so through all that, I’m stubborn, persistent, trying to do it right kind of person and I suggest that that kind of stubbornness is something that I’m sure that you have embraced to get to this moment.

I think the essence of personalization is to start with, you personalize your feelings about yourself. The thing I said about having an ego. Personalizing is about respect, trust, and caring. You act in a way that you earn your own respect. Don’t ever fool yourself. You want to trust that you’re doing your best, you’re not going to fool yourself. You’re going to care about what you represent and what people think of you. And then you translate that into the people that you work with, respect, trust and care.

It occurs to me that, I mean I’ve talked to our teams about this for a long time now, there was a title of a song that Dennis DeYoung wrote for Styx, “Best of Times/Worst of Times.” I hate the word “worst” but these are the toughest times. What do I mean by that? For all of you, things used to be simpler. Now there are a lot of distractions. When you go forward, values that used to be automatic are not. You have people who just look at you as a Washington University graduate, be envious, they haven’t paid the price that you have paid, they will try to … I mean in terms of study and effort … and they will try to distract you and try to remind you, and those are tough.

There’s also a real emphasis now on machines, and what they produce, and baseball, it’s this thing with metrics and analytics and they claim that they can tell you who to play, how to play, when to make changes, and that’s, it’s a nice tool. I will suggest that you study and prepare with all that kind of information but when you get into it, be aware of the reliance on machines and prepared knowledge. So those are the worst of times. It used to be easier.

Now the best of times. Because of what’s available to you, you can incorporate all that, and go forward and you actually have more opportunities and here’s a really important message. We need you. All of us that are looking to the young folks coming forward, in your case graduates, are very soon going to be in the workforce pursuing, personally and professionally. We need you. We need you to step forward and be as excellent as you can be.

I’ve read coaches’ comments and their sayings for years and one of my absolute favorites and I think it’s a great one, Vince Lombardi once said to his team, “We will relentlessly chase perfection in every game or practice game that we pursue, relentlessly pursue perfection. We will never achieve it. But what we will achieve is excellence,” and I think that that is a wonderful message for you, and where it comes from, more than anything else, is your frame of mind. Your frame of mind is the key to the kingdom. That’s what makes personalization work. You control your mind. Don’t let anybody tell you what’s right and wrong.

I’ll give you an example. The 2011 World Series, we lost game 5, supposed to be pivotal, tied 2-2, lost game 5. Whoever was managing the club couldn’t make a phone call, twice, without having bad things happen so we walked in there, our club was just, well, we really couldn’t overcome how bad you are, but my message to the team that night, because it was a snafu, and one of the things you learn, you take responsibility, so I was the guy and I took responsibility, but I told them, some fans, not our fans, “But all the media is going to come in here and try and tell us it’s over. We control our minds.” I said, “We are going to go back to St. Louis and we are going to find a way to win two games.” You control your mind. As a matter of fact, as you probably noticed, we did.

Frame of mind. I think I was invited here because a lot of you experienced that historic comeback in 2011, and you wonder how we did it. Yeah, we had talent. We did it with frame of mind more than anything. Our team came together in a respectful, trusting, caring way. Our guts were outstanding. We refused to give in, refused to give up. That’s exactly the message that you need to take forward.

Communication is critical. I’m going to give you a couple quick ones. Because it’s always critical to communicate, and sometimes you have to be candid. Sometimes you have to be careful. I’ll give you a candid conversation. We had a great, had I guess it’s “had” but since he’s retired, Chris Carpenter, you all know him, one of the great warriors of our time as far as competitive pitcher, the No. 1 guy on the staff went out there to take charge and he was gonna be the guy who led us to victory and this day he’s struggling, he just can’t get anybody out and balls keep going in gaps and outfielders chasing it and playing cut offs and relays for four or five innings. Our pitching coach Dave Duncan said, “Time to go get ’em.” I said, “You go get ’em.” He said, “You’re the manager, you go tell Carp.”

So the ball is in the gap and he had his back to the dugout and I walk out there and he gets the ball back, not happy, and he turns around and sees me and he says, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well Chris, you’re having a tough time. I’ve come to get you to take you out. ” He says, “Why? I’m not tired.” I said, “But our outfielders are.”

Communicate through signs. Sometimes we communicate through signs. So we put on a sign, and (gesturing) it will be a little bit tricky, rub your arm means you would take off the sign. That’s the takeoff sign. We had a player one time who kept running when he’s not supposed to be running, didn’t have the sign, so one day I accosted him, I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “What do you mean what am I doing?” “You’re not taking the sign.” “Heck you’re not,” “heck you are.” “What are they giving you?” “Going right there.” I said, “That’s our take off sign.” He says, “That’s what I’m doing, I’m taking off.”

So what’s the lesson there? The lesson is be careful with your communication. It’s really critical. What you hear is not what they’re thinking and you understand what I’m trying to say. But more than anything, you start and in the middle you mention and then you come back.

A frame of mind, personalize it, you will overcome adversity. You get a toughness, to move forward. You become exactly what you want to become, so we’re all challenging you. Take this opportunity, take this preparation, there’s a bad old saying that “You are only as good as your last sale or your last success.”

That’s BS. You’re only as good as your next one, so my strong suggestion is that all weekend with your family and your friends, enjoy this moment. You earned it, and on Monday, turn the page, and go out and be the personal and professional leaders that we need so badly. Good luck.